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A Candle for Her Lake-staring Mother

by John Liddy

Zephyr by Mary Mullen (Salmon Poetry, 2010)

On first browsing through these poems with my customary “getting to know you” routine, I thought that this is a book for women – written by a woman, published by women and with cover art work by a woman. The dedication, at first, is to the poet’s mother and then her father. But on closer reading a much wider picture emerges. The feminist viewpoint is present but it is not a feminist manifesto. Poem after poem reveal Mullen’s eye for landscape – Alaska and the West of Ireland, backdrops for the poet’s deeply personal and private concerns. But the real heroine in this book is the poet’s daughter Lily, born in Co Galway with Down syndrome, a special needs child and Mullen, not as mother but as poet, gives us a rare view of Lily’s world, one not found in Sunday Supplements.

The book opens with poems about Alaska, Mullen’s homeland, which she left behind for a life in Ireland. But she goes back in this opening section and in the first poem we learn that Smelt, a fish that once flourished along the Pacific Northwest from Alaska to British Columbia and as far south as Northern California, is also known as oolichan or hooligan, that the Irish-speaking emigrants working out of Anchorage stayed with a lovely lady Nellie Cronin and built a church in Our Lady of Perpetual Help. It is a gem of Irish-Alaskan social story-telling.

The poem First Response marks the Irish section and is followed with poems about the birth of her daughter Lily a few hours after the signing/of the Good Friday Peace Agreement and each poem hence deals with an aspect of Lily’s life. Lilyisms 2006 portrays the funny side of caring for her daughter who says

The postman brings me a pack-chig.
Sometimes boys are ick gusting.
And sometimes I wish I had a dumb bed
so I could sleep up high.
I can read Snow White and the Seven Dovers,
my favourite one is Grumpy. Like my Mum!

And in the very moving Irish Athletes Walk Tall in Shanghai, Mullen pours out her heart in the lines

You are half Alaskan gold, half Connemara marble.
You are soft and full of wily talk,
proud to spell tricky words, puzzled by nuance.
You know when the phone rings it is not for you –
My polar bear ready to spring off melting ice.
I can’t stop crying in my own Shanghai.
But, you, you are Nureyev, leaping.

In Pint of Milk we are treated to the poet’s wrath through words of closure directed at somebody who walked away and is no longer part of their lives, in which she plainly says

You are dead: sanded into extinction.
I put a candle on my desk,
and lilies; and made a vow to never
again give you the dignity of a poem.

Those lilies speak for themselves. And as the book comes to a close other references to lemon peels, blackberries and forget-me-nots play vital roles in the completion of poems about male crudity, a longing for company and for Alaska. We are left to ponder the whole of this work in the car park of the Writers’ Retreat in Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan, with a legendary note from Bernard Loughlin and the poet thinking

And somewhere in Lourdes, a brave girl
lights a candle for her lake-staring mother.

John Liddy writes in and translates from Irish, English and Spanish. He has published many collections, including Madrid and Other Poems (2018/19). His most recent work is Arias of Consolation, soon to be released. All his Spanish-related poems have been collected in a forthcoming book called Spanish Points. He is on the advisory board of The Hong Kong Review.

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